Image credit: Flickr/Raphael Chekroun

Three signs the housing bubble could be about to burst

Mortgage approvals dropping, Rightmove bosses selling shares, general complaints from Nationwide: is the bubble about to pop?

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 15 Dec 2014

Speak to most people in the UK and one of their first complaints is over house prices. There's an argument that the perceived 'bubble' is London-centric, although these rather nattily displayed figures by Halifax suggest house prices right across the UK (apart from Scotland) have risen over the past year.

Either way, three very different property stories today suggested that whether it's a bubble or not, the market is showing signs of cooling.

1. Rightmove's chairman almost halved his stake in the company

Scott Forbes, the chairman of property search website Rightmove since 2005, said this morning that he had sold 300,000 shares, almost half his stake in the website, at an average price of £23.51, a total of about £7m. That leaves him with 319,000 shares (worth about £7.5m at that price).

It's been a tough few weeks for Rightmove: the website's share price has fallen as much as 20% since the beginning of April, and last week arch-nemesis Zoopla announced plans to IPO. Has Forbes called the top of the market? Difficult to tell...

2. Mortgage approvals fell

Since its introduction of the way-more-successful-than-anticipated Help to Buy scheme, the government has been desperately trying to think of ways to rein in house prices. Last month, the Bank of England's Financial Conduct Authority introduced new rules forcing borrowers to go through checks to make sure they can afford mortgages.

The result? Mortgage approvals fell to just over 71,000 last month, almost 5% down from 76,000 in March, according to the British Bankers' Association. The six-month average is almost 77,000. If mortgage approvals fall, demand falls, and prices will begin to cool off...

3. Nationwide warned about the bubble

Last year was Nationwide's best-ever, the building society (and one of the UK's biggest mortgage lenders) reported this morning. In the 12 months to the beginning of August, gross mortgage lending rose 31% to £28.1bn, net lending rose 52% to £9.9bn and underlying profits increased by a staggering 113% to £924m.

But the company listed 'the housing price bubble bursting' as one of its major threats.

'Government policies, the low interest rate environment, and a significant flow of overseas buyers stimulate the housing market. There is a risk that these conditions may reverse, increasing credit losses in the group's mortgage portfolios and depressig the wider economy,' it said.

Bubble or no bubble, when even a mortgage lender suggests house prices may be unstable, it's time to start reconsidering the benefit of Help to Buy. The onus is also on the Bank of England to keep an eye on interest rates. You can see why governor Mark Carney is worried about increasing rates: any hike now could leave thousands of people who have over-borrowed in jeopardy. Something's going to have to give soon...

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